Snow job? Experts weigh in on El Niño in Carson City

El Niño weather this autumn and winter could make a dent in Nevada’s drought, but ample precipitation recently is just a good start on ending a huge problem.

That’s the gist of what weather and water experts said in a Sierra Nevada Forum presentation at the Brewery Arts Center Performance Hall Tuesday evening. The free forum, billed as “El Niño, the Blob, the Drought and ARK Storms,” packed the house and opened with remarks by Dr. Doug Boyle, state climatologist, member of the Governor’s Drought Commission and a University of Nevada, Reno, associate professor.

“In the mountain,” Boyle said of this year’s precipitation so far, “we’re about where we need to be for this time of year.” He said “a tremendous amount of water” is stored in snowpack during wet years and El Niño might be the ticket, but he said that’s something on which he preferred to pass the buck. Before he did, however, he warned about declaring premature victory over the drought.

“We have a long way to go,” he said. “We’re still early in the season.” He said the four-year drought has left a “pretty grim” situation. Even if this year makes up lots of ground toward a wetter Nevada, he said, vigilance makes sense in a state where precipitation always varies.

“We need to always be prepared for drought,” he said.

Kelly Redmond, a regional climatologist for the western United States, picked up the story from there. He said El Niño looks particularly strong this year and for the coming winter, but nearby Blobs are in the mix and no one knows how that’s going to affect the El Niño patterns or climate that results. He said El Niño often spawns a wet year, but nothing is for certain.

“El Niño does not guarantee a wet year; it just increases the odds,” Redmond said. But he also said this time the El Niño in the Pacific Ocean, which warms the surface water and can cause the precipitation, may rival other big ones in the past. “It’s still getting warmer,” he said. “It hasn’t maxed out yet.”

Michael Dettinger, research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, agreed with Redmond no one has a handle on how the Blob and El Niño is going to interact to determine weather. But he voiced concern the combination may mean temperatures are warmer than normal again this year, so additional snowpack may be held back. Snowpack, as Boyle had said, is one of nature’s ways of storing water for runoff.

“This is a very big El Niño,” said Dettinger. “I have a lot of optimism at this point that this is going to bring us a lot of precipitation.”

Dettinger also spoke on ARK storms, which he said are caused by what are termed atmospheric rivers. He said they also can bring lots of precipitation to the area. Regarding potential for floods along the Carson and Truckee rivers, however, he said historic patterns show they may be less likely in El Niño years than people might expect. He said consequently, this could be a wet year with minimal flood prospects.

“I’ll take that deal any day,” he said.

Also speaking was Chris Smallcomb, meteorologist with the National Water Service office in Reno, whose expertise was in warning about potential storms.

He told the audience weather forecasting over seven-day periods has more tools and has grown more solid in the past 15 years.


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